Sunday, September 25, 2011
Earlier last week a friend I've not seen for years made her way down to Singapore for a vacation with her plus one and little boy Max. See Ming has a thing for lemon cakes. Months ago, over Twitter, when she first called for recipe recommendations, I mistakenly drove her to the direction of this one. Yes, she wanted something that baked whole in a pan and not requiring fiddly layering or frosting, but I completely missed the bit where Deb lamented the pound cake was a tad dry, even with all the syrup swaddling business it called for. Since then See Ming has moved on to other recipes and I've lost count of how many lemon cakes she'd produced after my failed consultation.
For the sole purpose of pleasing the guest this time, I attempted to make things right and present her with the lemon cake I'd happily eat all by myself. This recipe was filed away in my mental bookmark ever since I first saw it while browsing through Deb's entire blog more than a year ago. The fact that this is Paula Deen's doesn't make any difference. I have nothing against a Southern woman who like a good deep fry and loads of butter. Having seen her bubbly self for the first time in one of Top Chef's quick fire challenges, I think she knows a thing or two when it comes to homey and traditional cooking, a warm trait which even David Lebovitz approved of.
I started with the lemon curd, which nicely consumed all my leftover egg whites from a recent chocolate pavlova bake-a-thon (story next week). It took a lot of restraint not to eat any of it after I was done, though I did clean up my wooden spoon and whisk before they went into the sink. Then I thought the classic 1-2-3-4 cake sounded too flat. It's a basic white cake, meant to be nothing more - despite a few cries of lament out there going on about how boring the flavor is. So into my cake batter went the zest of two large lemons. I was sure See Ming wouldn't bat an eyelid over the five lemons used for this cake. Now, while I was pretty smug about the curd and cake's potential to knock her socks off, the same couldn't be said about the frosting.
In fact, I hummed and hawed over it for days. I couldn't help myself. After reading some horror reviews on how it was a 'runny mess', sliding off the cake, hardened to sugary bits and such, I proceed to trawl the Net for more information, only to find out that it's an extremely temperamental frosting, easily affected by heat, humidity and draft - all of which comes in abundance here in tropical Singapore. After two nights of sleeping over this, I decided to risk it and went ahead with a little over seven minutes of accelerated heart rate on D-day. I mean, let's be frank, even the best but stable lemon flavored Swiss Meringue Buttercream would be wrong on this cake. Lemon and meringue are made for each other, be it in a tart, pie, cupcake or cake. There was plan of reinforcement though - the night before, I went shopping for a blowtorch (yes, I don't know why it took me so long) and got Vijay to set it up for some meringue toasting action (you should've seen his excitement during the process).
Did the cake stay in one piece? Luckily for me, the Gods of Baking were on my side, as you can see; even when it rained for hours before I met See Ming for dinner. She went head over heals later that night, proclaiming this the best lemon cake in the world (you see, I wasn't exaggerating when I told you she and lemon cakes, you know...) and reported that Max asked for seconds. Some went to another mutual sweet-toothed friend the next day when they met and eventually Najah announced she wished there was more for her. Vijay even snacked on the leveled off cake domes. As for me, I packed half of the leftovers with me to Shanghai, savoring every last bits of the perfectly balanced tang and sweetness of its tender, moist crumbs after my dinners, complete with the by-then-slightly-runny frosting and all.
So if you're even a little like us with a good lemon cake, I suggest the making of this as soon as humanly possible, even if you secretly suspect that I, like Paula Deen, am trying to kill you all (with yet another dessert recipe).
Lemon Layer Cake with 7-Minute Frosting
Adapted barely from Deb Perelman's Smitten Kitchen, original recipe by Paula Deen, detailed lemon curd and 7-Minute Frosting recipes from Joy of Cooking.
One 3-layer 9-inch cake OR
One 3-layer 8-inch cake OR
One 4-layer 8-inch cake OR
One 4-layer 6-inch cake OR
One 6-layer 6-inch cake OR
24 filled cupcakes
Note: I wrote this recipe as how I made it but essentially you can size it to your pans and cake layers as you wish. All the yields given are possible, only ensure your pans are at least 2-inches tall for each application to prevent overflow dramas. I would say though that if you, like me, have a love affair with homemade lemon curd; consider doubling the curd recipe to put more between (more?) layers and possibly around the cake like Deb's. Personally, if I had three 6-inch pans instead of only two, I would make a 6-layer cake just to stick more lemon curd in between.
1-2-3-4 Lemon Cake
Note: This classic cake gets its name from its proportion of ingredients - 1 cup butter and milk, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups of flour and 4 eggs, and from cupcakes to layers cakes, as a basic, white cake, it does not fail. I added lemon zest to make it a lemon cake. Though the idea of adding some fresh lemon juice to the milk to make it buttermilk did cross my mind, I dropped the idea for the fear of screwing up the cake. That was a mistake, at this recipe here clearly shows. The lemon juice would balance out the cake's sweetness and improve its texture further.
- 1 cup/2 sticks/8 ounces butter, at room temperature
- 2 cups castor sugar
- 4 eggs
- 3 cups sifted self-rising flour (I made my own)
- 1 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- zest of 2 large lemons
Preheat oven to 350∞F. Prepare, grease and line cake pans or muffin tins according to your application of choice.
Using an electric mixer, cream butter until soft and fluffy. Add sugar gradually and continue to cream well for 6 to 8 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition, scraping down bowl at least once between the additions. Add flour and milk alternately to creamed mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Add lemon zest and vanilla and continue to beat until just mixed.
Divide batter equally among prepared pans. Level batter in each pan by holding pan 3 or 4-inches above counter, then dropping them flat onto the counter. Do this several times to release as much air bubbles as possible and to ensure you of a more level cake. (For my very tall cakes I did this about 10 times for each layer.) Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. (Baking time varies according to your pan size, increasing as the diameter is reduced and height increased. For my two 6-inch round 2.5-inch tall cake pans, they took about 1 hour each. Start checking at 15 minutes if you are making cupcakes.)
Turn out cakes onto wire racks and cool completely before icing.
Note: I find this curd recipe just nice as it makes use of leftover egg yolks I gather from making Swiss Meringue Buttercream or pavlovas. Use larger lemons for a tangy curd - despite some comments on the recipe not being exact on the amount of lemon juice, I find this call for accuracy rather unnecessary. For the purpose of this cake, I made this curd thicker than usual - it was slightly wobbly after cooling to room temperature and sticky coming out of the fridge. This prevents it from running when sandwiched between cake layers. The texture will be just right when the assembled cake is served near or at room temperature. From the Joy of Cooking: This makes a sensation filling for sponge rolls or an Angel Food Cake. You can also marble it into a cheesecake.
- 8 egg yolks
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
- 3 lemons, zest grated and juiced
Place the ingredients in the double boiler over boiling water. Ensure that the top pan does not touch the water. Cook and continuously stir until mixture begins to gel or thicken, for about 15-20 minutes (yes, tough job but it will be worth it). Remove from heat and allow to cool. Cover and refrigerate it to thicken more.
The curd keeps, covered and refrigerated, for about 1 week.
Recipe adjustment: I've modified this recipe to suit my appliances and the hot and humid tropical weather. The water was deliberately reduced and I think I could do with another tablespoon less. In this frosting, both the light corn syrup and cream of tartar are important stabilizers - so I recommend them to be included.
Method and time: Most handheld electric mixer would not be able to go on a slow enough speed before the egg white foam too quickly and the sugar is yet to be melted. Experiment with your mixer but the hand whisking method works well with much more control. Made on a hot and humid day (it's not like I have a choice here), my frosting only became fluffy after about 10-12 minutes of whisking and beating. So eyeball yours but have no fear, since this was tested to survive Singapore, I'm pretty sure you will be equally if not more successful.
Assembly: Seven-minute frosting is extremely temperamental, sensitive to heat, humidity and draft. Make the frosting the day you'd like to serve the cake. Bring cake and curd close to room temperature if previously chilled and assemble the layers and filling. As you prepare the frosting the assembled cake would come to room temperature so it will keep the frosting stable. Frost immediately after the frosting is prepared - it will crust and dry up after about 15-20 minutes, sooner in dry conditions.
- 3 tablespoons water (original recipe uses 5)
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 1/3 cups sugar
- 2 large eggs whites at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 to 1 cup chopped nuts or shredded sweetened dried coconut (optional)
With a balloon whisk, mix the first five ingredients together in a large, stainless-steel bowl. Set the bowl in a wide, deep skillet filled with about 1 inch of simmering water. Make sure the water level is at least as high as the depth of the egg whites in the bowl. Continue to whisk the whites until the mixture reaches 140∞F on an instant-read thermometer. Do not stop beating while the bowl is in the skillet, or the egg whites will be overcooked. If you cannot hold the thermometer stem in the egg whites while continuing to beat, remove the bowl from the skillet just to read the thermometer, then return the bowl to the skillet.
Once the temperature is reached and the sugar has melted (I test both using my fingers), remove from heat and continue to beat the mixture with a handheld or stand mixer for about 5 minutes on high speed. Add vanilla, beating on high speed for 2-3 more minutes to cool. Stir in coconut or nuts, if you are using them. Use this frosting the day it is made. Do not refrigerate before frosting.
Lemon Layer Cake Assembly: Prepare cake layers and split them if necessary. I refrigerate mine overnight and this made the cake more stable during assembly. Run hands along the side of the cake to remove excess crumbs. Add 1 tablespoon of the lemon curd filling to the cake board or pedestal. Place the cake layers on the pedestal, spreading filling between the layers. To avoid conflict between the lemon curd and the 7-minute frosting, I did not cover the cake with the curd but I believe if you make yours thick and spread it on the outside thinly as Deb did, it shouldn't run into the frosting. Also, the curd recipe yielded just enough for a nice 1/2-cm thick layer of filling between my tall cake layers (my preference). Frost top and sides of the cake with seven-minute frosting and toast lightly with a blowtorch if desired, taking care not to burn the tips of the billowed peaks.
Filled Cupcakes Assembly: With a melon baller or a small sharp knife, remove the center of each cupcake (and proceed to snack on them as you move along). Fill a piping bag attached with a cake filling or 1/2-cm plain tip nozzle with lemon curd already brought to room temperature. Ice with frosting on the tops and torch if desired.
Do ahead and storage: Lemon curd can be made up to 4 days in advance. Cake layers can be made ahead and refrigerated till required. Make frosting the day of. For best results, serve cake day of without returning it to the fridge after frosting. I made frosting on a hot and humid day and it rained cats and dogs after my cake was assembled. Assembled cake keeps, covered and refrigerated for up to 4 days, depending on how far ahead you prepare the lemon curd. The frosting will run the longer it is chilled, however the cake and curd flavors and texture will not be compromised.
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